Housing regulations could change face of town
Connecticut Post, 2012: http://www.ctpost.com/opinion/article/Housing-regulations-could-change-face-of-town-3828563.php
All Fairfield home owners should be watching this issue very closely.
In Stratfield, a developer recently sought to circumvent our zoning regulations by invoking a 1989 state law that was designed to encourage the development of affordable housing. The developer wanted to subdivide his 10,000-square-foot site on Homeland Street, keeping an existing home on one half and building a second on the other half.
When this plan was denied by the Town Plan and Zoning Commission (TPZ) in March because current zoning laws require a minimum of 9,375 square feet for one home, he revised his application to include three housing units, one of which would be an accessory apartment over the garage of the second home. Under the provisions of state law “8-30g,” because the apartment would be classified as “affordable housing,” three housing units would be allowed on the property despite local zoning restrictions.
What may sound like a local dispute is quite obviously much more, so thank goodness for the groundswell of opposition from our Stratfield neighbors — more than 100 turned out at the public hearings, and more than 200 signed petitions in opposition. They understand that approving this proposal would set a precedent for the entire town of Fairfield that would allow developers to dictate how our town should be developed by allowing them to enter any neighborhood and change its character forever by simply including affordable housing in their plans.
Fortunately, the developer’s new application was rejected unanimously, primarily on the grounds that the TPZ had “not been presented with adequate information … to make a decision that is informed, proper and in accordance with the laws of the State of Connecticut.” It’s certainly likely this developer will try again. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, another developer has just threatened to propose a “so called” affordable housing development with many more units than the three he put forward to build on his Chatham Road site after his original plan was rejected unanimously by the TPZ.
Section 8-30g basically says that if less than 10 percent of a town’s total housing units are “affordable” (in the latest assessment, only 2.63 percent of Fairfield’s 21,648 housing units were deemed to be affordable), then multi-unit developments in which at least 30 percent of the units are affordable are exempt from local zoning regulations and can only be denied by local planning and zoning commissions based on “substantial public interests in health, safety or other matters which the commission may legally consider . . . that clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing . . . and cannot be protected by reasonable changes to the affordable housing development.” In plain English, this means that an 8-30g application cannot be denied simply because it is opposed by neighbors or would adversely impact property values, neighborhood character, aesthetics, traffic, and/or schools. Also, if any denial is challenged in court, the burden of proof regarding the legitimacy of the reasons shifts from the developer to the local commission, which basically means an expensive lawsuit that can be difficult to win.
The statutory definition of “affordable” is housing that costs no more than 30 percent of the income of people who earn 80 percent or less than the area median income or the state median income, whichever is lower. However, the only housing units that may be counted toward the 10 percent threshold of 8-30g are those which are built, acquired, or rented with government assistance specifically for low- and moderate-income people and those with formal deed restrictions that require the owners to sell or rent them at prices that are affordable to low- and moderate-income people. Thus, perversely, a town like Fairfield, in which more than 10 percent of the housing units may meet the law’s definition of “affordable,” is still vulnerable to 8-30g “coercion” if it does not have enough “statutory” affordable housing.
We should all be in favor of affordable housing for many reasons, including the opportunity it provides for older residents, those with limited or fixed incomes, local public- and private-sector employees, and young people working in entry-level jobs. At the same time, however, we should all be in favor of what has come to be called “Smart Growth,” which means community development under a thoughtful and comprehensive master plan, such as locating high-density housing near public transportation, on streets with adequate traffic capacity and parking facilities, and close to essential services, schools, and businesses, as opposed to plunking down high-density, multi-unit housing anywhere in town that a developer happens to have acquired a piece of land.
As a concerned citizen, I believe there is a solution. Legislative leaders must lead an effort to revise Section 8-30g to give communities like Fairfield: (a) a one-year moratorium from 8-30g for any town that wants to create a comprehensive Smart Growth Master Plan (SGMP); (b) the right to deny affordable housing applications that are not consistent with a town’s SGMP, and (c) credit towards the 10% objective for non-statutory housing units that are, in fact, affordable by the applicable standards but are not “deed restricted” or “publicly assisted.”
Meanwhile, I encourage all Fairfield citizens to become informed and engaged on this important issue and to let their local representatives know what they think.